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Hillsborough judge “not really satisfied” with sales tax refund plans

How to get more than $500 million to people who paid the tax remains in limbo.
Riders gather at a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus stop at the University Area Transit Center in 2020. Tuesday, attorneys argued before a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge on how a voided sales tax for transportation should be refunded.  [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
Riders gather at a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus stop at the University Area Transit Center in 2020. Tuesday, attorneys argued before a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge on how a voided sales tax for transportation should be refunded. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Jun. 22

TAMPA — How to refund more than $500 million from Hillsborough’s transportation sales tax remained unanswered Tuesday, after a circuit court judge questioned the competing plans from local governments and Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White.

“I’m not really satisfied with what I’ve seen with the (refund) mechanism,” said Circuit Judge Rex Barbas.

His comments came during a 40-minute hearing, in which attorneys representing Hillsborough County, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, the cities of Tampa and Plant City, and Clerk of the Circuit Court Cindy Stuart asked for court guidance on how to refund collections from a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.

Related: Hillsborough sales tax refund pitched to court

They suggested taxpayers could voluntarily submit refund claims to be decided by a panel of three retired judges. White’s attorney, Chris Altenbernd, argued that proposal was flawed and should be handled by the Florida Department of Revenue as part of separate class action lawsuits filed in Hillsborough and Leon counties from Robert Emerson of Apollo Beach.

“I didn’t save my receipts. I can’t submit one of these forms,” said Altenbernd. “It’s a waste of time.”

Related: Hillsborough sales tax refund plan disputed

Attorney Alan Zimmet, representing Hillsborough County, argued that a solution “doesn’t require all taxpayers be made party, as has been argued” and that the government plan means “a multiplicity of lawsuits can be avoided.”

David Caldevilla, the lawyer representing the clerk’s office, agreed, saying a local solution would avoid a percentage of the proceeds going to attorneys in a class action lawsuit.

“This process is not going to have any legal fees,” Caldevilla said of the government proposal

Voters approved the tax for transportation in November 2018, and it produced nearly $503 million in revenue before the Florida Supreme Court ruled in February that it was unconstitutional. The court decision came in a case from White, who said elected commissioners, not a pre-determined formula in the referendum, had the authority to allocate the proceeds. By mid-April, the unspent sales tax revenue totaled more than $521 million, according to the clerk’s office.

Alan Zimmet, from the Bryant, Miller Olive law firm, is Hillsborough County's outside legal counsel in the transportation sales tax issue. He is shown addressing commissioners March 3 on HGTV.
Alan Zimmet, from the Bryant, Miller Olive law firm, is Hillsborough County's outside legal counsel in the transportation sales tax issue. He is shown addressing commissioners March 3 on HGTV. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Barbas did not issue a ruling. He said he first will determine if he has the authority to decide a refund process. If so, he said, he may suggest a joint hearing with Judge Emily Peacock, the circuit judge overseeing the Hillsborough class action lawsuit, in order to devise a remedy.